CHICAGO -- More than 18 years ago, Clifford Rome Jr. was living the life, traveling throughout France working as a chef and culinary trainer at the Cannes Film Festival and working with celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck. The Englewood native was walking through doors that were closed to others who looked like him. For a while, he was OK with that, he said, until he was reminded otherwise after accepting a job to build a kitchen on a yacht.
"I figured I could do that, never mind the need for a marine architect and other stuff," said Rome, 47, who eventually took on additional responsibilities as chef aboard the yacht. "They made the offer. I jumped right in. I was young and single with no kids. The pay was good. All my expenses were paid."
Then, one day, "I remember pulling into Antigua in one of the largest boats in the harbor," he recalled. When he emerged from the galley, he said, he was immediately taken by the scenery. Clear blue waters rushed to meet the white sand beach, behind it a backdrop of palm trees and green brush hills. He also remembers getting a lot of stares. The islanders seemed shocked to see a black person of authority, especially one sporting dreadlocks. "They thought I was a football player or a rapper," Rome said.
Antiguans began lining up daily to bring Rome fresh fish, berries and herbs, befuddling chefs on other boats. "It was beautiful," he said.
Rome was encouraged by the "light in the eyes" of the people who celebrated him. He decided to return home to Chicago to build a brand that would empower people from his community, he said.
Known for his neatly coiffed graying locks, easy smile and tendency to punctuate conversations with "all right, darling" in a Southern drawl, Rome views the culinary arts as the answer to transforming the palates of inner city diners and helping young African-Americans overcome chronic unemployment.
Now an Evergreen Park resident married with two boys -- his grandmother still maintains their family's Englewood two-flat -- Rome and another investor opened several businesses in Bronzeville. Rome's Joy Catering, Peaches Restaurant, Blanc Gallery and Parkway Ballroom are within minutes of one another between 44th and 47th streets on King Drive, not far from where he grew up at 57th and Bishop streets.
"Growing up, I watched my mother go to work every day while my grandmother took care of the house and made the meals. I sat on the stool and watched her cook," he said, adding that she passed on a love of cooking to him. "Sure, my neighborhood was tough, but we had folks who cared about us, like Ms. Gordy who told on you before you even thought about doing something wrong. I can still hear the gates clicking when the street lights came on, a sign we had to be on the porch or inside."
From his mother requiring that he pay for his senior year tuition at St. Rita High School by working, to community stalwarts, like brothers Tim and Everett Rand of Midway Wholesalers and real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom, teaching him how to create and operate successful businesses, Rome was grateful for the people who helped him ascend personally and professionally.
"Not everyone has those role models," he said. "I drive through Englewood every day, and there is a constant reminder of where I'm from and what holds others back. I'll see a group of women strolling between 73rd and 75th streets on Halsted; they're selling themselves. A drug rehab center is not too far from there at about 68th and Halsted, where about 50 people are milling about at the gas station or at the White Castle at a time of day when most of us are on our way to work. Around 63rd Street, the area lights up with Kennedy King College, Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute, Starbucks and Whole Foods. But then, as you travel from there to 55th Street, all you see are vacant lots, raggedy cars and torn-down buildings. How can we expect these kids to succeed if this is all they have to go by?"
Rome committed himself to hiring and training people who seemed unemployable, he said. Offering on-the-job coaching, he cross-trained his employees on etiquette, customer service, serving, bartending, and proper food handling and preparation. He knew teaching his employees how to assume various roles would expand their culinary and hospitality job experiences, as well as their ability to choose how they navigate their careers -- whether working at one of Rome's businesses, or as independent contractors, or with another employer.
"His trickle-down effect of rebuilding people who seemed to have no redeeming job skills has worked," said Tiffany Merrills, the executive manager at Marquette Park Pavilion in Gary. Merrills worked for Rome as a server before advancing to bartender and later event planner as a result of his in-house training and mentoring, she said.
"My mission is to break the stigma, reverse the bad habits that hold our young people back, and give them something that no one can take away," he said. Rome said he found many of his employees by looking beyond the exterior and connecting and then empathizing with them.
In 2016, Rome expanded his reach and teamed with Centers for New Horizons to offer on-the-job culinary and hospitality training as part of a year-round, subsidized youth-employment program called Before the Plate.
Ronald Moore, 18, who says he's "motivated and driven, like Chef," recently graduated from Perspectives High School of Technology. He participated in the Centers for New Horizons initial cohort when he was 16. After Moore completed the program, Rome offered him a job at the Parkway Ballroom, where he worked until recently, leaving to attend a summer bridge program at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
This past spring, Rome completed a similar collaboration with Alternative Schools Network, a body of 20 nontraditional high schools. "We share in Chef Cliff's goals to collectively impact positive change in the communities where we live," said Martrice Manuel, ASN associate director.
"The wonderful thing about culinary training," Rome said, "is there is no ceiling. Your experience, network and hard work can take you any place you want to go in the industry."
Rome is also working to launch "Deeply Curious," quarterly "conversations around the dinner table" led by social and cultural community activists.
"What interests me most is Cliff's interest in intergenerational continuity," said Conrad Worrill, former director of Northeastern Illinois University's Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies. Rome connects elders with younger generations to fill knowledge gaps they need to grow and do well in their lives, he said.
Worrill and Amanda Williams, an architect and cultural visual artist, are among the hosts who will facilitate discussions designed to evoke change, collaboration and solutions for urban issues through Deeply Curious.
Rome hopes these discussions help young people rewrite their narratives "to become earners and contributors for themselves, their families and their communities."